Stretching and Improving Flexibility


Flexibility training should be an integral part of a complete exercise program that includes a combination of activities to improve cardiovascular fitness, strength and muscle mass, coordination, sport-specific skills, flexibility, etc. Stretching properly is an effective means of preventing injury and enhancing athletic performance by making the body more adaptable to the demands imposed upon it.

Clients don’t need to acquire contortionist-like elasticity of the muscles to reach flexibility goals. They simply need to obtain a balance of the musculature surrounding each joint.

The following provides a foundation necessary to achieve flexibility goals. A few xamples are given for each technique, but keep in mind that these stretching techniques can be applied to each muscle group.

Range of Motion

The distance through which a joint articulates is what is called that joint’s range of motion. Each synovial joint in the body moves through an active or passive range of motion in various anatomical planes determined by that joint’s shape and the extensibility of the surrounding soft tissues.

You can use norm charts to assess the flexibility of a client or simply compare the right and left sides to get started. Body symmetry is more important than

While joint flexibility beyond these values is rarely cause for concern, a lack of flexibility in any joint indicates a problem area which may be more easily injured should the joint structures ever be challenged. The goals of any complete exercise or athletic training program should include a consistent, progressive pattern of improved flexibility.


One of the primary reasons for developing at least “normal” flexibility is to allow the body to adapt to the demands imposed upon it without the demands resulting in injury. These demands may come in the form of a specific activity or simple postural stresses. This makes improving flexibility a high priority for everyone from the sedentary businessman to the most active of athletes.

For example, if your job requires you to sit in front of a computer screen all day long, your ‘fidgeting’ and resulting unique postural stresses may call upon the increased flexibility of the posterior spinal structures and the shortening or inflexibility of the anterior structures. Over a period of time, the connective tissues adapt, likely resulting in pain due to the overextension of the muscular and ligamentous structures and the back joints’ inability to adapt to and counteract the postural stresses. At this point, such a condition requires immediate attention to prevent further inappropriate adaptations and to restore a balance of flexibility throughout the joints. Ignoring such a problem may result in injury significant enough to require the intervention of a medical professional.

In the case of the athlete, it is the ballistic stress and the extreme ranges of motion which are applied to the joints and soft tissues that require that the necessary flexibility be available to prevent injury. For instance, a sprinter who lacks sufficient hamstring flexibility to accommodate to the high velocity, full-range movements at the hip and knee and to balance the strength of the quadriceps is at risk to suffer a tear of the hamstring muscles when performing at top speeds.

Performance Enhancement
In addition to preventing injury, flexibility also plays a significant role in improving overall athletic performance. Returning to the previous example, we can identify two major factors which influence the success of a top-level sprinter, stride length and stride frequency. Stride frequency is primarily dependent on factors such as strength or power and running technique. While stride length is also influenced by these factors, it is also determined by lower extremity flexibility. In other words, if two sprinters have identical technique, muscular power, and limb length, but one sprinter lacks sufficient flexibility to maximize stride length, the more flexible sprinter will win the race due to a longer stride assuming the same stride frequency.

Contraindications to Stretching
Unless directed by a health professional, the following represents situations in which stretching exercises are not appropriate.

  • Bony blocks that limit motion
  • Recent fractures
  • Evidence of an acute inflammatory process (heat, redness, swelling)
  • Sharp acute pain with elongation of the muscle.
  • Indications of existing tissue trauma

In Part 2 of this article, we’ll discuss static, PNF, and reciprocal stretching techniques.

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Therapeutic Exercise: Foundations and Techniques. Kisner, C., Colby L. A. F.A. Davis Company, Philadelphia. 1985.
Neurorehabilitation: A Multisensory Approach. Farber, S. W. B. Saunders Company, Philadelphia. 1982.
Muscles: Testing and Function. Kendall, F., McCreary, E. K. Williams & Wilkins, Baltimore. 1983.
Orthopaedic and Sports Physical Therapy. Gould, J. , editor. C. V. Mosby Company, St. Louis. 1990.


Beverly Hosford, MA teaches anatomy and body awareness using a skeleton named Andy, balloons, play-doh, ribbons, guided visualizations, and corrective exercises. She is an instructor, author, and a business coach for fitness professionals. Learn how to help your clients sleep better with in Bev's NFPT Sleep Coach Program and dive deeper into anatomy in her NFPT Fundamentals of Anatomy Course.
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